Education committee passes twin tuition programs

By Richard Lee
Texas Senate News

TWO MAJOR bills passed out of senate committees this week, including Larry Taylor’s school-choice legislation, senate bill 3, and the state budget, SB 1.
Education committee chair Taylor’s bill, which passed out of the committee on Thursday, seeks the creation of two programs to help parents pay for private-school tuition.

                         Larry Taylor
The first would use state money, allowing parents to apply for and receive a portion of the cost of educating their child in a public school for a year, which is around $9,000.
If the bill becomes law, the exact amount of the subsidy will depend on financial aid and disability status but it will range from 60 per cent to 90 per cent.
The second program would be funded by private donations in exchange for tax credits to create scholarships for private-school tuition.
Those scholarships would be limited to 75 per cent of the yearly cost to educate a child in public school and would be open to at-risk students such as those in special education or foster care.
Meanwhile, the senate’s finance committee unanimously approved SB 1, which seeks expenditure of more than $106 billion in 2018 and 2019 for state services, almost three billion dollars more than the original draft of the bill filed in January.
Committee chair Jane Nelson praised members for their hard work and for finding efficiencies in the way the state pays for many services, including health care and university spending.
She said: “We put several issues under a magnifying glass and not only did we come up with efficiencies and savings, in many cases I think we were able to improve the way we deliver services”.
She said she intends to present the budget before the full senate for a vote on Tuesday.
The senate will reconvene tomorrow, Monday, at 2:00pm.

Tax-cuts law on way to house

THE SENATE this week passed two bills intended to reduce the tax burden on Texas property owners and businesses, pleasing chamber president lieutenant governor Dan Patrick, who has made tax reform a priority this session.
One was senate bill 2, which seeks to cut the amount property tax can be increased before invoking a rollback election from eight per cent to five percent.
The other was SB 17, which seeks to kill off the business franchise tax.
Before the session began, Patrick commissioned a statewide traveling interim committee to study the issue of rising property taxes.
He designated the legislation arising from that study senate bill 2, indicating it as one of his highest priorities for the session. Before the bill passed on Tuesday, its author and interim committee chair senator Paul Bettencourt of Houston said property-tax growth is out of control, telling his peers: “We need real reform now. Homeowners pay in many cases eight, nine, ten per cent more a year and many commercial-property owners are paying 15 to 20 per cent more per year, year after year.”
To rein in that growth, SB 2 would lower the threshold to trigger a rollback election. Under current law, if a taxing entity raises taxes more than eight per cent in a year, taxpayers can gather signatures to petition for a rollback election.
That lets voters decide whether they agree with the tax hike and, if not, it pushes the rate back to a calculated rollback rate. SB 2 would reduce the trigger to five per cent and would make the election automatic. It also moves the date of any rollback election to the uniform election date in November.
Also passed on Tuesday, Flower Mound senator and finance committee chair Jane Nelson’s SB 17 intends to gradually end the franchise tax by dedicating revenue to buying down the rate in years with strong growth in state revenues.
Under the measure, in years when the revenue grows by at least five per cent over the previous biennium, half of the amount collected above five per cent would be used to reduce the franchise tax rate.
Nelson told members that will create a roadmap for ending the tax completely, saying: “Many of us would love to see the franchise tax go away altogether and, under this legislation, we put it on a glide path to elimination.”
Both measures are now heading to the house of representatives for consideration.

Committee mulls easing gun license ‘burden’

By Richard Lee
Texas Senate News

TEXANS seeking a license-to-carry firearms permit would see a much smaller fee under a bill considered by the senate’s state affairs committee on Monday.
If bill author and Jacksonville senator Robert Nichols has his way, he says Texas will go from the “burden” of being one of the nation’s most expensive states for carrying handguns to one of the cheapest.
Nichols said he was introducing the bill because the current fee of $140 to apply for a license that permits concealed and open carry of handguns in the state is among the highest in the nation.
He said: “These fees impose an undue burden on people’s constitutional right to bear arms as it relates to concealed carry or license to carry. This will take Texas from having one of the highest fees in the nation to one of the lowest in the nation and still covers what I believe to be the real cost of running the program.”
His proposal, senate bill 16, would reduce the application fee to $40 for the initial license and cut the renewal fee from $70 every five years to $40 as well.
He told the committee members his original idea had been to eliminate all fees for application and renewal but, with state revenue tight this year, he changed his proposals to cover the public safety department’s costs of managing the program.
It costs DPS $27 to conduct a background check on license-to-carry applicants and there are further incidental costs relating to processing and management that raise the total to about $40 per applicant.
In order to receive an LTC permit, applicants must take a four-to-six-hour class, pass a written test and then demonstrate adequate proficiency with a handgun at a gun range.
The committee also considered a few bills that would relax or change some of those requirements for certain people.
One, SB 263 by senator Charles Perry, would remove the minimum caliber requirement for range qualification. At present, people are required to use a handgun of at least 0.32-inch caliber to demonstrate proficiency, but supporters argue that this could present difficulty at the range for people accustomed to using smaller-caliber handguns.
Another bill by Perry, SB 264, would waive the range requirement for county jailers and state corrections officers because they receive handgun training as part of their profession.
Similarly, Plano senator Van Taylor offered a bill, SB 138, to exempt active and retired military-service members from the proficiency demonstration if they have gained a military-range qualification in the past ten years because they would have already received much more rigorous firearms training during their military service.
All four bills passed the committee unanimously.

Creighton birth bill moves on

THE TEXAS senate tentatively approved a bill in which senator Brandon Creighton seeks to remove “wrongful birth” lawsuits in the state.
SB 25 author Creighton, whose district includes Bolivar peninsula, says the 40-year-old current law, under which a doctor can be sued for delivering a child with a disability, is archaic and sends the wrong message about people with disabilities in Texas.
He said: “We should not coin a child born with a disability as an injury. We should not create that negative connotation and a physician should not be liable in any way because a child is simply born disabled, as long as that physician did everything in that standard of care that’s accepted.”
Opponents of the bill raised concerns that it might permit a doctor who opposes abortion to withhold information about congenital anomalies that might make a mother decide to seek an abortion.
Creighton disagreed, saying that doctors would still be required under other statutes
to meet existing standards of care and disclosure and that those statutes provide parents with adequate remedy for malpractice.
He said: “If a physician omits critical information that a patient deserves, or directs a patient towards an outcome that is different than what the testing has shown, they are very much on the hook for malpractice, fraud, emotional distress, gross negligence and losing their license”. –Richard Lee, Texas Senate News

Weber aims to end fish war

By Lora-Marie Bernard

RANDY WEBER is calling for temporary relief for recreational anglers to combat gridlock over access to Gulf red snapper.
The county’s US congressman last week introduced house resolution1382, dubbed the Give Our Fishermen Immediate Snapper Help, or GOFISH, act.
The bill calls for the expansion of recreational red snapper access from nine days per year to 62 days, a state regulation that has caused ire because, at the same time, it allows commercial fishing boats unrestricted rights to harvest the species.
Weber said the bill is a stop-gap measure that he hopes will spur discussion among the fishing industry that leads to resolution of the dispute.
Weber, left, said that, if passed, GOFISH will provide recreational fishermen with a 62-day red snapper fishing season in the Gulf of Mexico during July and August this year and next.
During a January interview, he gave notice of his intentions when he said: “Basically, what I am saying to all three of these guys – the commercial guys, the charter boat captains and the recreation guys – is, ‘Look, you have one session of congress to come to the table and hammer this out. Let’s get together and fix this’.”
A battle has raged for years about Gulf fishing access and management and Weber said he is ready to have the contentious battle settled.
He said: “It’s been a problem for our Gulf Coast fishermen. We want to be thoughtful about the fishing industry in Galveston. You might recognize it is large and an important part of our economy. We want to make sure that whatever bill is passed doesn’t create some more regulations that would actually do a number on the fishing industry.”
To push GOFISH through congress, Weber said will need help from a large number of house representatives and senators from Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia as well as Texas as he admits its passage will be an uphill battle.
The five states have diverging perspectives on how to manage Gulf fishing but he said he hopes the warring factions – the commercial and charter-fishing industries and recreational fishermen – will agree that recreational fishing days can be expanded.
He said: “We have to talk to them about what is the best way and most thoughtful way to do this. Let’s at least get the recreation guys at least more than nine days because nine days is laughable.”
The bill has been referred to the house committee on natural resources.

             Terry Adams

Lawyer shocks courtroom as he tells state’s top justices that county commissioners took almost four years to fire Bonnie Quiroga after determining her fate in 2010

By Ian White

TWO COUNTY commissioners moved swiftly do deny suspicions that they had broken the law after being asked about an extraordinary claim by one of the attorneys in Thursday’s supreme-court battle between senior county jurist Lonnie Cox, below, and county judge Mark Henry.
Terry Adams, representing Henry in the dispute, told the Austin court’s justices that his client and other commissioners had privately discussed dissatisfaction with the work of the county’s court administration department director Bonnie Quiroga in 2010.
Adams was answering a question by justice Don Willett, who was following up an assertion by the lawyer to justice Jeffrey Boyd that Henry had been aware of “dissatisfaction by the majority” of the commissioners before “asking [Quiroga] to take another job or resign” in July 2014, even though the issue had not been discussed during a regular commissioners’ court meeting.
His answer left astonished observers from both the judicial and executive branches of the county’s local government wondering whether the meetings had, indeed, taken place and, if so, why it had then taken Henry at least 43 months to fire Quiroga.
Stephen Holmes, one of the two still-serving commissioners who were elected before 2010 gave an unequivocal and stern denial that he had been involved in any such meeting.
And Ken Clark, the other, said he had met with Henry and Kevin O’Brien in November and December that year but that the meetings had not broken any law because neither Henry nor O’Brien had yet taken their oath of office.
No other commissioner had been involved in the trio’s meetings, the precinct-four commissioner told The Post.
Meanwhile, asked if he had met with Henry, below, and other commissioners in 2010 to discuss Quiroga’s work performance, Stephen Holmes of precinct three said: “No”.
The mystery was caused in the last few minutes of Adams’ closing presentation to the court when Willett asked if meetings between the county judge and other commissioners outside the confines of regular meetings were “proper” under the state’s open meetings law.
Adams replied: “Yes; they met in 2010 before the act applied to them”.
That was a reference to the fact that Henry was elected to his office on November 2, 2010, and was not sworn into office until January 2011. It’s the oath of office, not electoral victory, that renders an elected official subject to the act.
O’Brien was also elected that November and so was also not yet subject to the act after replacing Bryan Lamb as precinct-two commissioner.
Although Lamb remained subject to the act until his term ended on December 31 that year, along with Holmes, Clark and Patrick Doyle of precinct one, told The Post that none of his constrained commission colleagues had taken part in his discussions with Henry and O’Brien.
Asked how Henry could assume from those meetings so long before that the majority of commissioners were in favor of firing Quiroga in 2014, Clark referred to Ryan Dennard, who replaced Doyle at the 2012 election.
He said: “Everyone knew my opinion against keeping her, then commissioner Dennard told the county judge that he could no longer support her. It’s perfectly legal for two members of the commissioners’ court to discuss matters outside our open meetings, so no law was broken either in 2010 or 2014.”
Whether it was Dennard’s opinion about Quiroga’s continuing value as a county employee that produced a majority upon which Henry could act is unclear. Holmes has supported his fellow commissioners in their legal spat with Cox, her champion in the affair, but it is not known whether Henry consulted him on her employment before terminating her.
Nor is it clear why the county judge felt it necessary to have a majority of the commissioners backing him on the firing.
That did not appear to be a requisite for his unilateral action in December 2010 when, before taking office and while vacationing on a sea cruise, he instructed a county employee to issue termination notices to senior officers including community services director Curtiss Brown, budget director Ron Shelby, human resources director Rosa Franco and San Luis Pass bridge director Dennis Byrd.
The supreme court is expected not to take too long before issuing its ruling in the Cox-Henry case, especially as the subject it raises of correct county governance is the topic of a statewide continuing-education seminar being organized next month by the Texas office of court administration.

Senate finishes work on emergency bills

By Richard Lee
Texas Senate News

The Texas senate has approved bills on the last two items tagged as emergencies by state governor Greg Abbott in late January. Measures relating to the call for a constitutional convention and foster-care system reform last week joined bills banning so-called sanctuary cities and reforming ethics rules for elected officials already sent to the house of representatives for its consideration.  
On Tuesday, Febraury 28, the senate approved SJR 2 and SB 21, bills to call a constitutional convention and set rules for selecting and controlling delegates to that convention, respectively.
Legislation author senator Brian Birdwell of Granbury, who believes an out-of-control federal government must be reined in by the states, said: “It is abundantly clear to me that the congress is incapable of or unwilling to propose amendments that limit its own power or that of the other branches to return our nation to the original spirit of federalism intended by our founders”.
The mechanism for making congress consider such amendments is found in the fifth article of the US constitution, which requires congress to call a convention for the purpose of amending the nation’s founding document if 34 states formally petition for it.
Any amendments approved at that convention are adopted if 38 states ratify it. So far, Birdwell says, eight other states have passed resolutions similar to SJR 2.
The formal petition from Texas is intended to be narrow in scope, calling only for amendments relating to limiting federal power, requiring a balanced federal budget and implementing term limits for federal elected officials.
SB 21 governs the selection and behavior of delegates to such a convention. They must be serving members of the state legislature and they must stay within the bounds of the topics set by the convention call. If they don’t, the legislature retains full authority to recall and replace them.
An amendment added by Tyler senator Bryan Hughes would add the threat of criminal penalties to delegates who defy the will of the legislature.
On Wednesday, March 1, the senate approved unanimously a bill that would continue the overhaul of the state agency charged with child welfare and foster children, the department of family and protective services.
The agency has been under strict scrutiny since media reports emerged of an overworked, over-capacity system with children going weeks or months without seeing case workers and being housed in hotel rooms and government offices.
The senate’s DFPS reform bill, Georgetown senator Charles Schwertner’s SB 11, seeks to expand a north-Texas pilot program in which case management services for foster children are turned over to a child-welfare focused nonprofit.
Schwertner told his colleagues that program has already shown success, saying: “The single source continuum contractor in that region is keeping children and youth closer to home, moving children out of residential treatment centers and into therapeutic foster homes, keeping sibling groups together, as well as not allowing children to sleep in office buildings and hotel rooms”.
Although non-governmental organizations would begin to take over foster-care case management, Schwertner stressed more than once that the state would remain the ultimate guardian over foster children.
In looking to expand the program, the bill requires DFPS to develop standards by which the state can determine whether contractors are ready to take over management as well as developing new metrics by which the contractors’ success of the can be judged.
The bill also includes new requirements for expedient medical examinations and evaluations for children entering the foster-care system and moves investigations of abuse and neglect under the child protective system.